Sir Richard Branson is preparing to fly into space this weekend with his private space company Virgin Galactic.
The 70-year-old billionaire and the rest of his six-person crew will fly in suborbital space on the VSS Unity spacecraft.
Unlike Jeff Bezos, who will blast into space atop a rocket later this month, Branson will be taking a different approach.
VSS Unity will take off beneath the wings of a carrier aircraft known as VMS Eve, named after Branson’s late mother Evette Branson.
At an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters), Eve will drop Unity and the space plane will make its own way to suborbital space.
After only about four or five minutes of suborbital, weightless flight, Eve and Unity will both come back to Earth and land at Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America in New Mexico.
What time is the launch?
Virgin Galactic hasn’t released the exact time of the launch, but the company is going to start online coverage of the event from 2pm BST on Sunday, July 11.
The entire flight, from take off to landing, may only last for around 90 minutes.
The team will spend four minutes enjoying weightlessness before returning to Earth.
How to watch the Virgin Galactic flight
The company will be livestreaming the event on its website and its own YouTube channel so anyone is able to watch.
Who is joining Richard Branson on the flight?
Sir Richard has dubbed himself ‘Astronaut 001’ and will be responsible for evaluating ‘the private astronaut experience’.
Branson has undergone the same training, preparation and flight as Virgin Galactic’s future astronauts. He will be joined on the flight by:
- Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor at Virgin Galactic. Moses will serve as cabin lead and test director in space, overseeing the safe and efficient execution of the test flight objectives.
- Colin Bennett, Lead Operations Engineer at Virgin Galactic. Bennett will evaluate cabin equipment, procedures, and experience during both the boost phase and in the weightless environment.
- Sirisha Bandla, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations at Virgin Galactic. Bandla will be evaluating the human-tended research experience, using an experiment from the University of Florida that requires several handheld fixation tubes that will be activated at various points in the flight profile.
- Pilots Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci who will be flying VSS Unity into suborbital space.
What is the Virgin Galactic space plane like?
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity space plane is designed to give an unrestricted view of the Earth and a space to experience weightlessness in orbit.
It features individually sized reclining seats with ‘G-Force management’ and automated mood lighting.
Virgin Galactic also said the cabin was designed specifically to allow for an ‘out-of-seat weightless experience’ by including soft cabin surfaces and window edges.
A large mirror allows passengers to view themselves floating in zero gravity.
‘This cabin has been designed specifically to allow thousands of people like you and me to achieve the dream of spaceflight safely – and that is incredibly exciting,’ Branson said earlier this year when the cabin design was shown off for the first time.
Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said: ‘The spaceship cabin interior is in many ways the design centrepiece of the astronaut journey, and what has been created will both facilitate and elevate a uniquely profound and transformational journey for the thousands who will fly.’
How much will it cost to fly with Virgin Galactic?
While Richard Branson’s flight on VSS Unity will fulfil a personal mission of his, it will also advertise to the world’s wealthiest that Virgin Galactic is soon open for business.
Around 600 individuals have already signed up the service and given deposits for a ticket to space.
But the tickets don’t come cheap – the full ticket price will be as much as £180,000 in some cases,
‘I truly believe that space belongs to all of us,’ said Branson.
‘After 17 years of research, engineering and innovation, the new commercial space industry is poised to open the Universe to humankind and change the world for good.
‘It’s one thing to have a dream of making space more accessible to all; it’s another for an incredible team to collectively turn that dream into reality.’
While that ‘accessibility’ is currently only to the very wealthiest, Branson hopes that that price can come down as Virgin Galactic’s fleet expands and operations become more streamlined.